How we can facilitate our children’s understanding of the mind? What tools can we give them to shape their Inner Voice into a helpful presence?
Earlier, we talked about our child’s secret companion. Not only does that companion shape our children’s perception of the world, it also plays a key role in the development of their sense of self. This companion is their Inner Voice.
It is somewhat similar to the voice we notice in our own heads. However, whereas as adults we may have learned strategies that help us manage it, our children do not yet have the cognitive skills to work with the Inner Voice in helpful ways.
In fact, these skills do not come naturally, and need to be taught. And so, in this article, we are talking about just that — how we can facilitate our children’s understanding of the mind and give them tools to shape their Inner Voice into a helpful presence. But before we dive in, two quick notes:
- Strategies below work best for children 6 and older. As a parent who knows your child best, make adjustments that make sense to you and are developmentally appropriate. If you have any questions at all, hit reply and let me know.
- Younger children cannot yet connect an abstract symbol (written word or a picture) to what they are thinking about. In this case, a simple strategy of rephrasing what they are saying, will keep building a helpful Inner Voice. Rephrase your child’s “I can’t” to “You can try” or “You can ask for help” or “We can together,”etc.
The point of these steps and strategies is to help children own their thoughts and their thinking process, so that they are able to analyze and assess the accuracy of what they think and, ultimately, make intentional decisions about possible actions. All of that develops their critical thinking skills and builds the foundation for future metacognitive abilities.
Step 1. Catch That Thought!
Children do not habitually think about their own thinking. They need instructions on how to do that. This step is all about teaching them to recognize two types of thoughts: self-defeating and empowering ones. Before we can change the thoughts that are not helpful (“I am stupid, I will never get this, I am not good at anything”), we need to learn to catch them. The child could be repeating negative thoughts without realizing he is doing it. It takes direct attention to these thoughts in order to catch them.
- Tell your child that sometimes we have helpful thoughts in our head and, sometimes, unhelpful ones. Share some examples, and ask the child to share some too.
- Use lighthearted examples that do not feel too close to the challenge the child is currently struggling with, so that he does not get defensive. Your goal is to get participation and have a discussion going.
For example: Someone spilled milk. An unhelpful thought could be: “I am so clumsy!” A helpful thought may sound like: “Hmmm… What do I need to get to clean this up?”
- When you see your child struggle with something, ask him what thoughts are visiting him. (“Let’s see how many we can notice. Then you will keep the helpful thoughts and let go of the unhelpful ones.”)
- You can ask the child to think out loud as he keeps working on a task, so that new thoughts can be noticed.
- This takes a bit or practice and even modeling on your end. You can show your child how you use helpful thoughts when you are engaged in an activity that may be challenging for you.
Step 2. Change That Thought!
Action is driven by thought, and thoughts are driven by emotions. So really, to help children deal more successfully with the challenge he or she is facing we need to help them feel differently about the task they are attempting. And they can feel differently if they feel empowered to proceed.
We can guide our child understand that the thoughts we have can really be helpful, as long as they say the right things. We can reflect together on the fact that even when people talk among themselves, some things they say encourage us, and some do not make us feel any better about our situation. The same applies to the thoughts we tell ourselves. If there is a character from a book or a movie that the child really likes, see if together you can make the connection between the character’s feelings and actions and the thoughts she had.
- Because we are in charge of our thoughts, we can change them.
- We can ask the child to listen to the thoughts, and notice the unhelpful self-defeating ones.
- When we catch the one that’s not helpful, we write down a helpful thought to replace it with.
- The helpful thoughts need to be practical (“I can do…”) rather than artificially bold (“I am great at everything!” “I am super smart!”).
- We look at these visual reminders to say the new thought every time the unhelpful one comes up.
- Visual aids like that are helpful because they are readily available and stop an automatic thought.
For example, as soon as the voice says: “I am stupid” we can help the child write “I can do it. I just need a strategy.” When a thought “I am not good at this!” shows up, the child can write down “I am really good at trying!” and so on.
Getting even more specific about the strategies and the specific steps the child needs to take will move the thoughts from sounding like affirmation to actually being guiding instructions. Then, when the child exclaims “This isn’t working!” he can have specific instructions to fall back on, like: “First I do this… Then I do this… Then I check it over like this…” and so on.
It is important to be nearby to give the child the right steps for the task. Children who are younger, have shorter attention span, or low frustration tolerance will benefit from a list of written out step-by-step instructions or a visual guide.
Step 3. Practice, practice, practice!
This strategy does not work immediately, and we need to practice working with the Inner Voice together with our child. When the strategy does begin to work, it gives children a very important sense of ownership and control over themselves and the situation they are in. This builds their sense of self-esteem and resilience. They begin to rely on the Inner Voice for guidance and support when we are not around.
It is important to remember, of course, that if we do not model what we teach our children and fall victims of our own negative thought patterns, this strategy will take a long time to stick. Kids can tell when we are sincere. If need be, try catching your own negative thoughts and transforming them the way you teach your child.
Do you tend to say “Wow, look at that pile of laundry! I am never going to be done.” or “Wow, that’s a lot of laundry! I will fold it one by one.” Perhaps, you may want to listen to music while doing that, which a better strategy than thinking you are a horrible person for not liking to do chores.
Children always learn from us, whether we teach them directly or not. We can learn alongside them too!